In Defense of the Non-Humans First Declaration
By Jon Hochschartner
I’d like to take a moment to defend the Non-Humans First Declaration, a text that has become something of a boogeyman amongst intersectional animalists. But first, let me be clear about what I’m not doing. I’m not defending the signatories, social media activity associated with the declaration, or anything ancillary to the text itself. This isn’t necessarily meant as a condemnation of these. Rather, I want to limit the scope of my argument.
As mentioned, the declaration has amassed many critics. For instance, while I don’t have the work in front of me, I believe in “The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century,” Steven Best described the text as ‘fascist.’ Fascism is one of those accusations slung around the left with such frequency it has lost nearly all meaning. And, as much as I respect Best, I suspect his opposition to the declaration might be personal, rather than political, given a noted signatory is a former comrade, against whom he was forced to take out a restraining order. This would be, of course, understandable on Best’s part, considering what he has gone through, and I wish him a speedy recovery.
In a 2013 article for the Vegan Feminist Network, Syl took issue with the declaration’s approach, arguing signatories “don’t seem to realize that over time, we will lose people from the movement since women, people of color, homosexuals, disabled people, etc will run the hell away.” Corey Wrenn, writing for the Academic Abolitionist Vegan that same year, stated, “Dismissing the importance of intersectionality, the declaration promotes, intentionally or not, what equates to misogyny and white supremacy apologism. It is a position that I argue constitutes harm on vulnerable humans and reflects the privileged space occupied by many anti-speciesist organizers.”
I’d like to address such criticism with a close analysis of the text itself. I know my defense of the declaration will open me up to various accusations. I only hope those who disagree restrict their attacks to my argument. Ad-hominem attacks create an atmosphere in which learning, growth, and debate necessary for the health of our movement, are impossible. With that in mind, and doing my best to observe my own dictum, let’s begin.
In what I believe is the first section animalists might find controversial, the declaration states, “Whereas; non-human animals are in a situation of immediate emergency and global holocaust with no human crises even coming close to its scale.” Some might disapprove of the use of the word ‘holocaust.’ But as I’ve argued elsewhere, all movements compare themselves to struggles of time past, both to confer legitimacy on themselves and establish the urgency of their cause.
For instance, the celebrated Black writer, James Baldwin, describing government repression against the Black Panthers, said, “Now, exactly like the Germans at the time of the Third Reich, though innocent men are being harassed, jailed, and murdered, in all the Northern cities, the citizens know nothing, and wish to know nothing, of what is happening around them.” A quick internet search reveals Baldwin made such analogies frequently. Many readers, I believe, might find such comparisons provocative or inaccurate, but I doubt they’re outraged by them. It’s only when human suffering is compared to animal suffering these analogies become truly objectionable. And that’s speciesism.
As to whether animal suffering is of a greater scale than human suffering, as the declaration suggests, this seems inarguable to me. Over 65 billion land animals are slaughtered every year, according to Farm Animal Rights Movement. To put that in a bit of perspective, the Population Reference Bureau estimates only 107 billion humans have ever lived. So, of course, animal suffering is infinitely greater than its human equivalent. Some may ask why this matters, wondering if animals really need to compete in what’s often called the “Oppression Olympics.” I’m sympathetic to this line of questioning. But the truth is the scale of violence against animals must be clearly stated in a society, in which, even amongst leftists, animalism is dismissed as an eccentric, bourgeois concern, that, at best, can be seen to after capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy are overthrown.
The declaration continues, stating, “Whereas; we recognise our role as animal rights activists as being to directly advocate for non-human animals giving their interests a voice (as they have none in human society), rather than to represent our own ideologies and interests.” Presumably, the only portion of this with which animalists might disagree is the admonition not to represent one’s own interests. First of all, it has to be pointed out no one is forced to stop representing their own interests based on what’s said in the declaration. It’s not legally binding or anything. So, to me, it’s suggesting that, say, the animalist worker devote his time to confronting human supremacy, rather than his own exploitation by capitalists. The worker is, of course, free to do whatever he chooses. As the declaration repeatedly states — and as should be assumed, given the fact it’s written by random people on the internet, not the government — these are principles voluntarily agreed to.
In her article, Syl suggested activism was not a zero-sum game, and thus there is no need to prioritize one struggle over another. I’ve made similar statements in the past. But the truth is, we are mortal beings with limited time on this earth. Time spent by the animalist worker, rallying against his capitalist exploiters, is time taken away from efforts aimed at defeating human supremacy. That’s the reality, sad as it is. And while surely capitalism and human supremacy are connected, some efforts more directly fight one than the other. Conscious or not, some sort of prioritization of struggles must take place. And to me, that’s what the Non-Human First Declaration is. It states the signatories prioritize the goals of the animalist movement above all other political objectives.
In perhaps the most controversial statement of the text, the declaration states, “No one should be excluded from participation in animal rights activities based on their views on human issues. The non-human animals are in a situation of immediate emergency and need all the help they can get! Furthermore, the women’s rights, anti-racism, etc. movements have no requirement that participants reject species oppression and nor should the animal movement demand the adherence to human rights positions while animals are still in a state of emergency.” Such a big-tent approach is fairly common in other movements. For instance, one must assume the National Abortion Rights Action League has no official position on socialism. Were it to insist all of its members be socialists, the group would obviously be smaller and less effective.
Exploring this point in more depth, I’ve used the example of anti-war movement in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s. According to socialist Peter Camejo, there were two general strategies amongst peace groups of that era. One was represented in the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC), and the other in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Camejo belonged to the former organization, which — according to Michael Steven Smith and Paul Leblanc, writing in the International Socialist Review — ultimately served as the “backbone of the campus antiwar efforts.” For his part, Camejo credited SMC success to its big-tent approach.
“The SMC didn’t require that its members hold any particular beliefs outside of wanting the United States to immediately withdraw from Vietnam,” Camejo said. “The [Socialist Workers Party] understood that the development of a genuinely united mass movement against the war was of crucial importance and that people didn’t have to agree on the nature of capitalism, the two-party system, or other issues in order to work together to demonstrate against the war.” In contrast, SDS insisted participants in their anti-war efforts agree on multiple issues, and as a result their demonstrations were much smaller.
To me, the conclusions Camejo draws here feel intuitive, and how they would apply to animalist campaigns seems obvious. The fewer ideological demands one applies to potential members or participants, the larger your base of support will be. The more ideological demands one applies to potential members or participants, the smaller your base of support will be. In practice, this suggests we should support big-tent animalist groups, that don’t have an official position on new welfarism or abolitionism, let alone trigger warnings and Palestinian resistance. However, as the declaration states, “every rule has its exceptions.”
The text continues, but I think, for the most part, it restates already-mentioned principles, the objections to which I’ve addressed. In conclusion, I believe the Non-Humans First Declaration has been unfairly demonized. While I will not speak to criticism of the signatories or social-media activity associated with the text, I do support the declaration itself. I look forward to what I hope is a constructive dialogue on the issue, free from personal attacks on both sides.